Couldn't have said it better myself...



"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin




Thursday, January 31, 2013

What if...?

I was just going to include this story with others in another linkdump on Saturday, but the more I've thought about it, the madder I have become...
After David Cameron announced yesterday at Prime Minister's question session in the House of Commons, a Downing Street source is reported to have said that food banks were to be welcomed as an example of "the big society"; so far, so predictable.
But then she is said to have added:
"Benefit levels are set at a level where people can afford to eat. If people have short-term shortages, where they feel they need a bit of extra food, then of course food banks are the right place for that. But benefits are not set at such a low level that people can't eat."
The last statement may be currently true, although with below inflation increases to benefits already proposed by the government for the next three years against increasing food, fuel and transport costs, together with announcements today about council tax increases disproportionately hitting poorer households, that may not be the case for long... But there is also a subtle campaign of stigmatisation of the poor going on at present, with many saying that benefits would be more than adequate if these workshy shirkers didn't spend their money on drink/cigarettes/Sky TV/flashy trainers/game-systems/smart-phones/spray tans/carry-outs (delete as applicable). There is work to be done helping people make appropriate spending choices... But in a world where conspicuous consumption is not just evident, but is actually encouraged by government as a means of kick-starting the economy, then why should it be one rule for the rich and another for the poor (and particularly for the children of the poor, who often put inordinate amounts of pressure on their parent/s because "everyone else has...") But that is a different issue entirely...
My main issue is with the idea that food banks are there "If people have short-term shortages"... I suppose that it was the "If" word that got me, given the current "If" campaign to eradicate world poverty... That is an achievable aim if the G8 have the creative imagination and courage to work together. And IF that is achievable, it should be even more achievable to make food poverty disappear in the UK... How can one country have at one and the same time an increasing problem with obesity AND a growing need for foodbanks?
I've written about food banks a couple of times before and have said that the first time I observed such programmes in the US I foolishly suggested that excellent though they were, we probably didn't need them in the UK because of our welfare state. But within 2 weeks of my return I realised my mistake in encountering 2 families who, for various reasons, could no longer put food on the table or money in their electric meter. That number has multiplied many times over since then, prompting us to set about establishing a local food bank, rather than continuing the link with Belfast Storehouse that we established in the wake of our return from the US that time. It seems to me that in the current climate it is not a matter of "if" people have short-term shortages, but "when"...
What would you do "if" you found yourself in a situation...
  • where you'd moved house the year before to something a good bit bigger and had just replaced your car, when suddenly you have been made unexpectedly redundant after working for the one company for over 20 years. You've signed on for the first time ever, but the benefits system has been glacially slow to kick in... your mortgage is overdue, and yes, you should have put something away for a rainy day, but you just never got round to it... 
  • where your husband simply disappears off the scene, leaving a mountain of debts, no money in the electric meter and no oil for the central heating, and refuses to pay appropriate maintenance, despite driving around in a top of the range car... 
  • where 2 government departments, and a crooked or incompetent lawyer (it remains to be seen which), manage between themselves to lose your passport and residency paperwork, which means that despite working here for over 14 years (paying full tax and national insurance), you are now unable to work or claim ANY benefits... indeed you are even told that you can no longer be seen by your GP even though you are pregnant (that is nonsense by the way)...
  • where you were managing OK on a minimum wage job until you had a short term but serious health issue, that meant you couldn't work for a week or two... then you took out a pay-day loan, but missed the first payment, leading to the astronomical interest rates from there on in throwing your carefully worked out budget completely out of kilter...
  • where you and your wife were on benefits through health issues and were just about coping until she was taken into care 20 miles away, bringing you the extra cost of visiting her, and removing her proportion of benefits from the household budget, which hasn't diminished significantly (and this will get worse with the bedroom tax)...
  • where you are a single mum on benefits who was just getting by until in one week, the car and the washing machine needed fixing at the same time (and I'm sure we've all had weeks like that)...
  • where you and your partner were intimidated out of a house by someone linked to paramilitaries, but were reluctant to report it to the police and ended up losing housing benefit and losing your deposit on the previous flat because you left without sufficient notice and the property had been damaged because of the intimidation.
People shouldn't have to be on emergency food aid from food banks for prolonged periods of time... and most food banks and their partners try to make sure that doesn't happen. Trussell Trust not only have efficient systems in place to avoid abuse of the system, but they and all the best food banks also endeavour to get behind the reason for repeated appeals for help from the same people, signposting clients to debt-counselling services, advice centres, counsellors, employability schemes etc. However, if people were paid a real living wage, and the benefit system was a lot less Byzantine, more responsive to real need, then, and only then, would there be no need of such things in the Big Society... 
But I predict that the need will increase rather than decrease in the coming years... Sadly.

Shalom

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Praying Pastors or Mini-Messiahs?

Another wee excerpt from Peterson's "The Contemplative Pastor":
"People would rather talk to the pastor than to God and so it happens that without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines.  And so pastors, instead of practicing prayer, which brings people into the presence of God, enter into the practice of messiah: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding the shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally quite good at."
There is so much packed into a few lines here... but it essentially comes down to how we as pastors model things for those who have been entrusted to our care.
Do we model 
  • The Primacy of Prayer, or
  • The Minister as Mini-Messiah?
Yesterday I had a conversation with two friends that I don't see half enough of, and they were, with some justification, bemoaning the fact that they have been at a number of prayer "events" recently, where there has been a lot of talk about the need for prayer, but not a lot of time given over to the practice of it. Most damning was their comment that the ministers talking about prayer clearly didn't believe a word of what they were saying... 
I have frequently been heard to say that often we are the answers to our own prayers, however, we need to ask the questions first before we hear what the answer should be. Prayer must precede practical engagement with any problem, rather than simply be a prayer for God's benediction on what we have already begun. 
But this goes hand with my previous comments on busy-ness... we are too busy for prolonged prayer... we need to be up and going, and at best have substituted hastily shot-off "arrow prayers" on the hoof, for real, reflective prayer.
And this is further reinforced by the temptation to become a mini-messiah... To be seen as a fixer... Always only a phone call or an email away when needed. Who needs prayer to an insubstantial deity, when you can have an omnicompetent pastor on your doorstep in 5 minutes? 
Following the announcement of my upcoming move away from my current appointment I've had a number of people say lots of nice things about how helpful I've been and how they aren't looking forward to me moving (thankfully those who are cheering at the thought of my departure have kept their feelings to themselves). It's very flattering, but too much of that, at any time can feed an inappropriate sense of my importance in things... I am only A channel of God's grace... one among many. But to encourage people to turn first to me rather than to the source of that grace can do them profound spiritual harm... It encourages dependency on a fallible human being rather than on our always faithful heavenly Father.
And our public practice is shaped by what happens in private, where we are unobserved by anyone but God... James the Elder was said to be called camel-knees because of his devotion to prayer. But private prayer forms more than callouses on our knees... It determines the whole direction of our ministry, and may have profound implications on the spiritual lives of those entrusted to us.

So... that said... I'm off for a time of prayer...

Selah

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Subversive Kingdom

Following on from yesterday and Peterson's comments on the subversive power of parable, his comments on subversion itself are worth noting:
"Three things are implicit in subversion.
One, the status quo is wrong and must be overthrown if the world is going to be livable. It is so deeply wrong that repair work is futile. The world is, in the word insurance agents use to designate our wrecked cars, totaled. 
Two, there is another world aborning that is livable. Its reality is no chimera. It is in existence, though not visible. Its character is known. The subversive does not operate out of a utopian dream but out of a conviction of the nature of the real world.
Three, the usual means by which one kingdom is thrown out and another put in its place military force or democratic elections are not available. If we have neither a preponderance of power nor a majority of votes, we begin searching for other ways to effect change. We discover the methods of subversion. We find and welcome allies."
(Again I've gone with his Americanisms, despite the protests of my spellcheck. I do love the word "aborning" though - I'd never come across it before, but having done so I will not shoehorn it into my discourses wherever possible!)

I suppose these comments registered with me in relation to the state of the world in which we find ourselves (and which I and others have commented on at length), both locally and globally...

  • A province that has no understanding of real peace because of the misguided pursuit of "peace and quiet" - an absence of conflict rather than the presence of justice on the part of our political and other civic leaders (including the church)...
  • A province riven by division - re religion, politics, culture, generations, income, social class... with political parties exploiting political and cultural divisions and churches either reinforcing or seeking to bridge religious divisions depending on their theological leanings, and no-one paying much attention to any of the other divisions...
  • An inward looking province that thinks that our problems are the most intractable in the world with an ingrained attitude of competitive victimhood, whilst the rest of the world is also in turmoil...
  • A world riven by ideological division - some religious, some political, some an unhealthy combination of both...
  • A world which is more than capable of feeding its current population but is not doing so because of self-seeking wrong-headedness on the parts of national political leaders and multinational business leaders.
  • A world in the midst of slow-motion economic meltdown, where the western capitalist consumerism is being shown to be completely unsustainable...
  • A world which is on the edge of environmental catastrophe... ignored by politicians and business leaders for the sake of short-term advantage, supported by theologies that are banking on the return of Christ in the next fortnight, just before the oil dries up and we're all huddling on mountaintops to escape the floods!


This world is a mess...  If God were a loss adjustor he would have written it off years ago... But he hasn't... However, the "new world" will not come about by that old one-two beloved of both the United States government and its emulators, as well as Sinn Fein/IRA and their emulators: physical force and/or the democratic will of the people... Might rarely establishes right... Nor is the majority always right... Indeed Jesus life and stories establish that...

Jesus often began his parables by saying "The Kingdom of God/heaven is like..." before offering an unusual, and at times very unheavenly story... And I think this is where Peterson resonates for me... He suggests that the tools for establishing the new world order, the Kingdom of God, are not primarily political, much less military, but are often artistic: parable and poetry and picture, music and theatre... Inspired subversion... changing hearts and minds subtly, gradually... Undermining the unthink of inherited political, religious, cultural and economic mindsets...

I suppose that is one of the things that attracts me to a project we are seeking to develop in the run up to Easter this year, while I'm on my sabbatical. It touches on my passion for politics, theatre and faith. I've been asked to stage a community passion play, setting the story of Jesus and the unsettling stories he told at East Belfast Mission's Skainos Development, on the Newtownards Road... A place of economic deprivation where there have been violent clashes over the decision to restrict the flying of the flag of the United Kingdom over City Hall... 

It will be interesting to reflect on what happens when the religious and political leaders in a provincial backwater of an imperial power are faced with someone telling stories of a totally new Kingdom... 

Subtle subversion? We'll see...
Shalom

Monday, January 28, 2013

Peterson on Parable... with a wee something thrown in by me...

In his book "The Contemplative Pastor" (I'm only 20% of my way through this so there's plenty more to come on this strand) Peterson says:
“Jesus’ favorite speech form, the parable, was subversive. Parables sound absolutely ordinary: casual stories about soil and seeds, meals and coins and sheep, bandits and victims, farmers and merchants. And they are wholly secular: of his forty or so parables recorded in the Gospels, only one has its setting in church, and only a couple mention the name God. As people heard Jesus tell these stories, they saw at once that they weren’t about God, so there was nothing in them threatening their own sovereignty. They relaxed their defenses. They walked away perplexed, wondering what they meant, the stories lodged in their imagination. And then, like a time bomb, they would explode in their unprotected hearts. An abyss opened up at their very feet. He was talking about God; they had been invaded!...

Parables subversively slip past our defenses. Once they’re inside the citadel of self, we might expect a change of method, a sudden brandishing of bayonets resulting in a palace coup. But it doesn’t happen. Our integrity is honored and preserved. God does not impose his reality from without; he grows flowers and fruit from within. God’s truth is not an alien invasion but a loving courtship in which the details of our common lives are treated as seeds in our conception, growth, and maturity in the kingdom. Parables trust our imaginations, which is to say, our faith. They don’t herd us paternalistically into a classroom where we get things explained and diagrammed. They don’t bully us into regiments where we find ourselves marching in a moral goose step.”
(forgive the American spellings - I'm taking this directly from the book)

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote an undergraduate thesis on Jesus' parables as a model of communication, and had a couple of false starts in taking my academic study of the same a bit further... But I am still convinced that we underestimate Jesus' use of parable, not so much for the communication of ideas as such, but as a vehicle of the sort of communication that promotes communion. Every parable is an invitation to ask where we would sit in the story... And as we find our own stories intersecting with these parabolic tales they should set us off on a different trajectory...
This is true not only of the parables of Jesus but the Bible as a whole... So much of scripture is made up of story, yet when it comes to dealing with scripture, so often we reduce it to a series of easily digestible propositions (3 or 5 points depending on your predilection) each one beginning with the same initial letter. Again, I've touched on this before in this blog, but I am puzzled as to why we do it... and I am as guilty as anyone else in this regard... Yes, I often use the stories of scripture for monologues exploring how the people involved felt, indeed I'm leading a seminar on the same in the upcoming Church Resources Conference and  Exhibition, but all too often when I use them in a service, I still feel the need to have a traditional sermon to unpack the scriptures a bit further... Why is that?
Is it because if I don't give people the sermon they expect on a Sunday that they might think they have been short changed?
Am I afraid that if I let people wrestle with the story of scripture themselves there is no knowing where it might take them?
Am I wanting to tidy up what God for some reason left unfinished, with too many loose threads and unanswered questions?

I suppose that's one of the reasons why I am keen that my congregation participates in the Biblica Community Bible Experience over the next few months... Engaging with the New Testament as story, and seeing how that engagement shapes their thinking as actions... Finding that not only were Jesus' parables subversive, but so is the whole of scripture if read free of chapters, verses and theological straight jackets... 

Selah

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Return of the Saturday Supplement

It's been a while since I did a round up of interesting things wot I found on t'interweb but was spurred on to do one this week on the back of two strands that have come out of the current "flags" issue in Belfast. Both are by people who previously worked with the two Methodist missions in Belfast: former East Belfast Mission Youth Worker, Harriet Long, and former club culture outreach worker with Belfast Central Mission Dave Magee.
After a couple of posts on her own feelings about the protests and how they were impacting on East Belfast, Harriet then started a short series giving voice to some women in that area coming at the issue from diverse perspectives, concluding with this one from a girl in the Catholic Short Strand area.
Dave has, for many years now, been working on peace-building and non-violent responses to problems in loyalist communities, particularly in North Down, and the flags protest prompted him at long last to start blogging from his experience... and this guest post on Eamonn Mallie's blog concerns what he calls the elephant in peace process, the vision of masculinity in loyalism... Actually I think that is only one of a whole herd of elephants in that particular room... but, to use an appropriate metaphor, it may well be the rogue bull elephant...
Both of these posts and the strands they come from are excellent... and they come from refreshingly new and articulate voices on the scene (at least new to the wider world... some of us have been listening to Dave rant for years!)... If you find yourself with some time today, sit with a cup of coffee and trawl through them... it won't be time wasted.
Although, if you are a resident of Belfast don't let that distract you from attending the close of the 4 Corners Festival, the timely celebration of Christian Unity here in Belfast. Unfortunately I can't make it due to a wedding today, but I hope that it acts as another counterbalance to the forces seeking to divide this city... and that very soon there will be plans for a follow up festival next year... I would love to be part of it, wherever I may find myself ministering...
On this blog it is rare to find me citing anything by the Rev. Ian K. Paisley (or Lord Bannside), for good or ill, but yesterday my eye was drawn to an interesting piece on Slugger O'Toole, refering to a piece by him previously posted on (and hastily removed from) the Belfast Newsletter website, which extolling the virtues of some aspects of the Good Friday Agreement... of course he doesn't mention it by name and doesn't explicitly give any credit to his predecessor as First Minister, David Trimble for all that he achieved in negotiating the same.
However, there the world is much bigger than Northern Ireland... As Lord Bannside points out, recent events have not reflected well on Northern Ireland recently, but I hope that some of the material originating from here concerning the up-coming G8 conference and the IF campaign in response to it will help to correct that, and lift our eyes from our local difficulties to the problems faced by the very poorest in the rest of the world... Stocki has also offered a helpful surmise on this subject...
A lot of blogspace in both religious and arts circles has been taken up by the film version of "Les Miserables..." I still haven't seen either the stage show or the film, due to a combination of being too busy to go to the cinema for the 3 day running time that it seems to take, and a reluctance to watch anything that I am told I "must" see. I'm not sure whether this review from the Spectator that I posted earlier in the week on facebook would encourage me to see it or not... but certainly it's description of the plot as being about a minor parole violation helped to offset some of the hyperbole.
 But on the world wide web, probably the most stimulating blog this week has been Rachel Held Evans' "Scandal of the Evangelical Heart." I'm still not convinced that we have properly addressed the scandal of the evangelical mind, especially given the increasing retreat into anti-scientific (or even worse faux-scientific) fundamentalism that is prevalent at present, but I am entirely with her when she says:
"The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending."
That's what I try to do in my ministry in general and in this blog in particular... I hope this Saturday Supplement helps you to do the same.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Busy Pastor and the Adulterous Wife

A title like that should draw a little bit of interest (although I must say that the site has been taking more than normal hits recently - so thank you to those who have been forwarding my ramblings to others - I am deeply indebted to you)...
However it is influenced by some comments which Peterson makes in "The Contemplative Pastor" where he begins by saying that
'The one piece of mail certain to go unread into my wastebasket is the letter addressed to the "busy pastor." Not that the phrase doesn't describe me at times, but I refuse to give my attention to someone who encourages what is worst in me.'
As a busy pastor just about ALL unsolicited mail goes straight to recycling unless it has something that will REALLY capture my attention... If you are reading this then my title has worked for you in your busy life...
I regularly come down with what a friend describes as harassed priest syndrome, where you arrive late at one meeting only to have to leave it early to be somewhere else... (Indeed I wrote the first draft of this yesterday - then last night I ended up arriving 15 minutes late for a meeting I had already rescheduled because of unrealistic diary management). That is bad enough when it is a committee meeting... but where it is a pastoral encounter we are talking about, it is totally toxic... it erodes the relationship between the pastor and the person they are meeting with, sending them a message that they are so unimportant that they are being squeezed out by other things...
I'm not proud of my busyness - it is often a sign of my disorganisation and rather than the demands placed upon me... And have a suspicion that C.S. Lewis may well have been right in "Mere Christianity" and elsewhere that much busyness can ultimately be attributed to laziness.
It is also a function (and I will return to this again) of the our usurpation of the role of Messiah or the place of God... after all, it is only God who is omnipresent and omnipotent, yet often pastors try to create the impression that they are both.
I have got a lot better at saying no recently... although I often find that I have to say no to the things I would like to do because of the things I feel I have to do...
Being about our heavenly Father's business should not necessarily lead to busy-ness... Indeed, as Peterson suggests:
'the word busy is the synonym not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective "busy" set as a modifier to "pastor" should sound to our ears like "adulterous" to characterise a wife or "embezzling" to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.'
Enough of such blasphemy... I'm going to really try to get to grips with this phenomenon in my own life and ministry, and NOT through the sacrifice of those elements of ministry that I find affirming and inspiring. But if I and other pastors are to do the same then we will need the help and support of each other (I'm in a particularly helpful peer-support group at present) AND those to whom we minister...
Please, brothers and sisters in Christ, do not connive with the fallacy that a busy pastor is a faithful pastor. Call us to account when we are running helter skelter rather than sympathize with us or make jokes about us, but also help us to filter out those things that are not really a good use of our time and energies...
Going back to the analogy Peterson uses between "busy pastor", "adulterous wife" and "embezzling banker", one of the sad things is that because of recent history "banker" needs no negative adjective to make it a comparison that no-one would wish for... The danger is that unless we address "busy-ness", the bald term pastor or minister may be held in the same sense of contempt... Seen as someone who is busy doing nothing of lasting import...
And any pastor seen resorting to websites advertising themselves as "sermon outlines for busy pastors" should be treated with the same opprobrium as one found trawling sites advertising "adulterous wives".

Selah



Thursday, January 24, 2013

Definitions...

"If I, even for a moment, accept my culture's definition of me, I am rendered harmless."
When Peterson makes this statement in "The Contemplative Pastor" he is specifically referring to pastors... but is it not true of everyone?
In response to my post last week offering an operating manual for ministers, one friend (and wife of a Methodist minister) suggested that it was not just ministers who needed such an operating manual, but teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professions who are frequently faced with unrealistic expectations... My response was that not only was that true, but applied to those outside of the traditional professions too. I'm actually very wary of special pleading on the part of ministers especially when it comes to their long working hours and busy schedules (more on that with my next post based on this book), given that we live in a world where so many people are subject to tremendous pressure and unrealistic expectations. We as ministers should, in fact, be modelling a very different mindset and modus operandi...
And part of that is about not allowing ourselves to be boxed in by other people's definitions of who we are, what we should (or should not) do or say and, indeed, what we should or should not think...
My identity is a complex thing... I'm with John Hewitt who famously defined himself as Ulster, Irish, British, and European, but I refuse to be restricted to and by such self-definitions. My sporting loyalties shape me as much as my cultural and national loyalties do; my interests and life experiences likewise... I am a Methodist minister, but I am a Methodist minister with a background in drama, and a primary degree in biology with a specialism in behavioural and evolutionary genetics... All of those factors have played a part in making me me...
Denominational definitions mean little to me... I am as much by conviction as upbringing Methodist (indeed I was baptised a Presbyterian) but am very happy in my role as hospital chaplain where I work with Methodists and "Others" - people of all faiths and none, without any desire to sell Methodism... I am also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with other "theological" definitions be they evangelical/ ecumenical/ liberal/ progressive/ conservative/ catholic/ orthodox or whatever, because so often they are about defining who is out rather than who is in... and if you are in then you become subject to the soundness police in case you say or do anything that brings your membership of the group into question, as per the response of the "evangelical community" to Steve Chalke, first with his attitude to penal substitutionary atonement and more recently gay marriage... 
My self description of choice is usually Christian - although, the behaviour of some who wave that name like a battleflag, such as the Christian Institute, would often make me feel embarrassed... But then I remember that when the terms Christian was used in Antioch (Acts 11: 26) it was probably an insult meaning "little Christ" or "mini-Messiah." 
I have no desire to be a Messiah in my own right (again more of that later in these reflections on "The Contemplative Pastor"), but I do hope that when people look at me, they see in me something of Christ, who ultimately brings meaning to my life...
That's what is most important to me... not my job, my passport, my family pedigree, my church, my favourite football team... Nothing is more important to me than Christ and his Kingdom...


Selah

ps. I had no sooner posted this than I came across this piece in sojourners on the rise of those who self-define as having no religion, often because someone else has questioned their right to define themselves as Christian due to lifestyle issues or questions etc.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Passion and Compassion

Time and again over the past couple of years I've come back to the issue of compassion, be it because of a perceived lack of compassion within the church particularly in this wee part of the world, or because I find it hard to practice any sort of self-compassion (the latter perhaps conditioned by the former).
Well yesterday, in my re-reading of Peterson's "The Contemplative Pastor" I came across his "definition" of a pastor as:
"a person who was passionate for God and compassionate with people."
Snappy. It has a "mission" statement/soundbite character to it, uncharacteristic of the usually forensically careful Peterson. But I'm trying to work out the implications of it.
Passion usually refers to some powerful emotion... Whilst it may be focussed on a person, or thing, often it can become intensely selfish - the person or thing may be the object of the passion but ultimately it is all about satisfying the emotional needs of the person experiencing that passion... Now there is a theological sense in which that is true of the passion for God that Christians in general and, if Peterson is true, pastors in particular should experience. An encounter with the God whom we were (according to Presbyterians anyway) created to glorify and enjoy forever, should satisfy our deepest need. Sadly, however, it can be corrupted into something both selfish and superficial at the same time... Responding to Jesus as our "heavenly boyfriend", as per the critique of some contemporary worship songs... A real, passionate relationship with God must go much deeper than that, reshaping who we are in the light of his love and holiness...
And the manifestation of that should be our compassion for others... The word usually translated as "compassion" in the New Testament could more accurately be translated as "splenetic" - a feeling deep in the bowels... or spleen to be more anatomically correct. But the prefix "com" implies a shared passion... a passion that encourages us to stand "with" someone... An emotion that physically moves us to do something...
An emotion that motivates us to campaign on behalf of those who feel voiceless... even if we may not like what they have to say...

An emotion that motivates us to argue for a change to economic, educational and political systems that have served me and mine well, for the sake of those who have not fared so well...

An emotion that motivates us to do more than press a like button on a facebook campaign, or sign a petition or even donate money by whatever means, but to actually go and do something with someone...
An emotion that motivates us to get off our backsides and onto our knees, and off our knees onto the streets...

I say all that against the background of the If campaign launched today... I am fully in support of this, and hope that all right-thinking individuals will be, whether Christian or not...
But whilst I hope that we will be passionate in our support of it, I hope it goes way beyond sharing soundbites and clever images on twitter/facebook... motivating us to look at how we spend our money and time as individuals and churches... standing alongside the poorest in our communities and the wider world, in the face of those who consistently write off entire communities and indeed countries as feckless scroungers who need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (if they possessed boots in the first place).

This Sunday I'm speaking at the World Development service of another church on our circuit and they have picked Graham Kendrick's song "Beauty for brokenness" as one of the hymns... The chorus of that song is as good a way as any to sign off:
"God of the poor
Friend of the weak
Give us compassion we pray
Melt our cold hearts
Let tears fall like rain
Come, change our love
From a spark to a flame"



Shalom




Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Political Potency of Prayer

Partly as a personal response to some of the issues raised in my (surprisingly popular) post last week prompted by some of the points of annoyance I encounter in my calling as a pastor/preacher, I thought I would return to Eugene Peterson's "The Contemplative Pastor" as part of my daily devotions for a wee while... And a few lines in I found a whole collection of thoughts piling up which required more mature reflection... so in the absence of any ability on my part to do such a thing, I thought I'd blog on a few of them... beginning, as we should with the discipline of prayer...
Peterson says:
"Prayer is a subversive activity. It involves a more or less open act of defiance against any claim by the current regime..."
In other words, prayer is not just an act of personal piety or a corporate ritual, but is a profoundly revolutionary political activity. To continue my thoughts in yesterday's post, not only is prayer a pledge of allegiance to a kingdom that is not of this world, but it is also our means of communicating with our commander in chief... That is why the public act of prayer at Belfast City Hall last month and the continuing 11:11 prayer initiative are not just mere gestures in the face of a hopeless situation... They are the very germ of hope itself, but, if taken to their ultimate conclusion are potentially much more unsettling than ANY flag protest, because the peace we pray for is not just peace and quiet so that Belfast and Northern Ireland can return to business as usual, making money but turning a blind eye to sectarian division, and a political and economic system that marginalises entire communities. The peace we pray for is the shalom of God, where righteousness is the rule of the day, not self-righteousness or respectability... where justice reigns, Biblical justice not simplistic retribution and certainly not judgementalism.

Last night I was briefly at a meeting looking at the direction of mission in our local Methodist District... I had to leave because of a migraine (not, I hasten to add brought on by the meeting...), and our District Superintendent, Heather Morris, began by emphasising the place of prayer in the mission of the church... She drew on a quote of Henry Ford (who, despite being a somewhat ethically suspect individual, did say some clever things):
"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it." 
Henry Ford
Heather went on to say that Christians might easily substitute "prayer" for "thinking" in that quote and it would make even more sense...

Prayer is fundamental to everything... my ministry as a pastor... the mission of the church... But it requires a discipline we do not always dedicate to it. But if we do, the difference it potentially makes in our lives, the life of the church and the world around us is incalculable. Peterson continues:
"[As we pray,] slowly but surely, not culture, not family, not government, not job, not even the tyrannous self can stand against the quiet power and creative influence of God's sovereignty. Every natural tie of family and race, every willed commitment to person and nation is finally subordinated to the rule of God."
As Jesus taught us to pray:
"Your kingdom come, your will be done..."
and start in me...

Selah

Monday, January 21, 2013

Presidents, Principalities, Powers and Prophets

Today President Obama takes his second inaugural oath for the second time, due to the vagaries of the 20th January falling on a Sunday. This is an event of immense importance for me, even though I am an insignificant blogger bashing away on his keyboard in the backwoods of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and could have no part in the election of this man. But there is no doubt that his decisions ultimately make as much, if not more, difference to my life as do those of the politicians I am able to elect who sit in the big white house on the hill little over a mile from where I am writing, or the contentious clowns we have managed to elect to the council that sits in Belfast City Hall down the road... There has been some controversy over who will lead in public prayer during the inauguration, but I was encouraged this morning by this prayer by Scot McKnight for the President, and perhaps I could do with using a variation on it as I pray for my political representatives at a local, provincial and national level.
But in the run up to Mr. Obama's re-election in November, I chose to read Shane Claiborne's book "Jesus for President". I had also planned to read Barack Obama's "Audacity of Hope" which I've had lying around since his first election... but I still haven't got round to it. But whilst Claiborne's book is aimed at addressing some of the fault lines in American politics and the twin cancers of conspicuous consumption and the myth of redemptive violence that shape all political decision-making there, there is, within this book much to say to our dysfunctional province and its politics...
As I said in my review of his book, I am not one of those who would rush to canonize Shane Claiborne, nor, like Rachel Held Evans, attempt to emulate him, his is an important voice to hear against the clamour of those who have allowed their Christian faith to be subverted by their political beliefs, national loyalties and addiction to material consumption. As I said in a review of his earlier book "The Irresistible Revolution" the church, and particularly the western church needs prophetic voices like his. I went on to say:
"I am not overstating things when I call him prophetic... he is a 21st century hair-shirted John the Baptist, calling us back from the catastrophic culture of Christian consumerism and the modern manifestations of evangelical imperialism." 
His appearance and his radical lifestyle may put off more traditionally minded Christians, but his message needs to be listened to, because it is straight from scripture, and, more importantly, straight from the life and message of Christ. If you are dismissing what he has to say then, in large part you are dismissing what Jesus had to say.
Jesus encouraged people to give to Caesar what was legitimately his... but also to give to God what is his... He never endorsed any particular political power or movement... He had violent men among his followers, but never endorsed the use of violence to achieve anything in his name... He met regularly with members of a puritanical religious sect for food and discussion but publicly criticised their hypocritical judgementalism, and physically challenging the blasphemous money grabbing of the Temple authorities. He encouraged people to look beyond their national and religious boundaries and see erstwhile enemies as neighbours to be loved. 
I don't look to Shane Claiborne as my inspiration, nor to Barack Obama, or to any other political or religious leader on this side of the Atlantic... I seek to follow Christ, and Christ alone as my King... but that has implications not only for my religious life, but for my political, social and economic activity.
It means that I must be prepared to do not just what is to my personal advantage, but what is right in God's eyes... that my words should be based not just on what is popular, but was is true... that my attitudes should be shaped, not just by the culture I was brought up with, but by seeking to see things as others see them.
Whether in Washington or in Waringstown, East Tennessee or East Belfast, Christians have to make a call on where their loyalties lie... Not just in terms of political loyalties... but spiritual loyalties. Not only a question of what is more important, the flag of the United Kingdom (or of the United States), or the Kingdom of God? But also are your loyalties to you and yours... to your tribe, your social class, or simply to your immediate family? Or are they shaped by God's priorities - the care of the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised, the voiceless, the hurting, the lost?

Shalom

Saturday, January 19, 2013

An Operating Manual for Ministers (at least this one)

A wee while back I posted a piece on Facebook by American Pastor Gary Brinn, purporting to be a list of "Secrets that your Pastor Can't Share in a Sermon". It's a variation on a theme that has been doing the rounds of the internet for years (and probably existed in print form before that). I suggested, and then rapidly retracted the suggestion, that maybe I would publish my own list... Well, after sober reflection (?) here are a few things that, were I an electronic device, would be printed in 6 languages on a large piece of paper; no-one ever reads them but most users work them out eventually. By the same token, most of my congregation have worked most of these out with me, whether or not I have explicitly stated them... however many of them probably apply to others, and might help anyone unfortunate enough to end up with me as their cleric in the future:

1) Your jokes about me only working one day a week are not funny... not even the first time round... and that was a long time ago. But I'll probably laugh all the same. I usually counter by saying something along the lines of "Yeah, that's why I came into ministry, but I didn't read the small print on the contract." You probably only think I work one day because that's the only day you see me, conducting a service, or maybe two, (although as this week, 3 isn't unusual). But each of those services take hours of preparation... choosing Bible readings, studying the passages in question, picking hymns, preparing sermon and prayers, coordinating with anyone else involved... But that's not all... there are Bible studies and administrative meetings to prepare and attend, pastoral visits to make, civic functions to represent the church at, picking up whatever others have left undone, acting as unofficial caretaker, church secretary and/or computer technician. And that's without taking into account stuff in the wider church that doesn't even appear on the radar of local church members, but is just expected by the church hierarchy... I try to keep it below 60 hours per week, but if I don't laugh at your witticism concerning my working week, perhaps it's been a little bit more than that for a while...
2) And as for saying, in the run up to Christmas or Easter "So is this your busy season?" don't expect a truthful answer. If truth be told it is often no more busy than the rest of the year, thankfully, because the rest of the year is already busy... and there is a limit to how much you can actually do in a week. It's just a different sort of busy. Routine events like Bible studies usually stop for a week or two and all the other seasonal specials start... That said, by the time Christmas Day or Easter comes I am totally and utterly exhausted... So don't expect to see me for at least 3-4 days afterwards...
3) But getting back to Sunday worship being the only time you see me, three things: First, please, please, please don't come to me 2 minutes before I go in to pray with the choir to tell me something important (unless you want to warn me that the sanctuary is on fire or the like)... This is especially true  if it is something critical about me or someone else in worship. It is not that I am averse to criticism entirely (more of that later) but there is a place and a time and the vestry 2 minutes before going into worship is neither... At that moment, on the best of days I will be prayerfully trying to focus on what lies ahead, or on bad days I will be running around like a scalded cat trying to sort out some last minute hitch. Either way I will not be at my most receptive and it will not be conducive to positive preparation for worship.
4) Second, if you have anything important to tell me, then please don't simply tell me at the door as you are shaking hands with me on the way out... It's remarkable how many do... There are others who look at the queue building up at the main door and disappear out the back, or what they describe as the "Nothing to Declare Channel". If you do tell me something on the way out the door, I may nod and smile, or shake my head, bite my lip and furrow my brow in concern, but really, the likelihood of me remembering what you have told me for longer than a retarded goldfish is remote. By that stage on a Sunday my brain is completely and utterly frazzled... My blood sugars will be low, my adrenalin depleted, and, unless some kind soul has pressed a coffee into my hands, I won't even be able to draw on the effects of caffeine to keep me alert. The thing you want to tell me may be important to you, but the other eight things that other people told me at the door are also important to them. And I think they are all important... too important to entrust them to me in a verbal message at the door when I am clinically brain dead. If it really is important then please write it down and give me a note, send it in an email, or phone later to arrange to meet me during the week to talk. 
5) Third, don't moan to others about not seeing me during the week. If you need to see me, either because of the complaints I would rather you didn't bring to me immediately before worship, or because of something important in your life that I would prefer you didn't entrust to me at the door of the church, or for any other reason, then please call me, and we can arrange an appropriate time to meet. Or come to see me at the "pastoral surgery" I run. Pastoral conversations are important, they help me to know what are the live issues with you as individuals and as a congregation, but also because part of my role is to help you deal with difficult issues in your life. However, whilst I think that "routine" pastoral visiting is important, the important invariably plays second fiddle to the vital, with time taken up by emergencies and priority visits to the sick, elderly and infirm. So unless you phone me and arrange to meet then you may well need to be in a bad way before you find me on your doorstep or by your bedside.
6) Also, whilst you may see me on a Sunday, I may not see you... and more to the point I may not NOT see you on those Sundays when you are not in attendance, and a significant period of time may have elapsed before I actually notice your absence. So there are two points at play here... first, don't sit at home stewing, saying "When is that useless minister going to visit me?" Again, phone or email me... And if I do finally notice (or am told by someone else that you have been missing for 6 weeks) and come to your home, then be honest with me about your reasons for absence... if you have a problem (especially with me) then I can't help unless I know what it is. And if you aren't in then, when I drop a card through your door, again, phone me using the number on the card... Otherwise I'll presume you really don't want me to call at all...
7) If anyone is going to notice who isn't there Sunday by Sunday, it should be those sitting next to them normally (because everyone has their "seat")... If someone is unexpectedly missing next to you either tell me (though not at the door) or, better still, follow up with them first, and see how they are... That's the sign of a healthy caring congregation, not having a professional pastor who does the whole congregation's caring for them on a surrogate basis because he's paid to...
8) And if anyone ends up in hospital, suffers a bereavement or other calamity, then please, please, please phone me and let me know... when I was ordained I did not get a crystal ball along with a Bible, so letting me know about such things is important if I am going to do my job... don't even worry about being the 14th person to let me know some piece of information... better 14 times than not at all... This is especially the case when someone goes into hospital... I'm chaplain to the local hospital and even then I have had church members be admitted to hospital, die and be buried before I knew they were ill. This is partly due to administrative incompetence in the hospital and wariness about embarrassing people in asking about their faith (despite the fact they will happily ask about sexual activity and bowel movements... which strike me as infinitely more personal than whether someone is a Methodist), but could easily be subverted if patients or their families would simply tell me themselves.
9) You will not like some aspect of the way I do things, be it my "lack" of pastoral visits (to you), my conduct of worship, my theology, my politics, my clothes... Whatever. If the things that irk you about me approach any sort of a critical threshold, do not moan about me to all who will listen, particularly not outside of the congregation, at least not until you have come and moaned to me. But not before worship (or any other meeting for that matter). I am not perfect. I need to learn from other people's perspectives, and I really do value honest and open engagement with people about my thinking and work.
10) However, do hold in mind that I work for God... not you or the Church Council, or the Circuit Superintendent. or the Methodist Conference. That may seem a little over the top, but that's the way it is. Every other level of authority is just middle management. The standard line trotted out at many ministers' introduction to a new congregation (installation, induction, call it what you will) is "The Rev. Soandso is your servant, but you are not his master." But even as a servant, don't think you can treat me as a lacky because you think "I pay his stipend." You, and the rest of the congregation together pay my stipend... but it is a stipend, not a salary... It allows me to carry out my ministry without financial worries (just)... I don't get paid according to results... and certainly not on an hourly rate (otherwise I might be on minimum wage or below). I didn't become a minister to make money. I did so because I sensed a call from God that I could not resist any longer... and let me tell you, I did resist. That means I'm not always going to preach what you want to hear. Sometimes I'm going to challenge you, in fact, sometimes I'm going to really, really annoy you. I won't go out of my way to do it and I don't do it for fun. I do it because that is what God's word does to all of us at some time or other on some issue or another.
11) Whilst you and the rest of the congregation pay my stipend that does not mean I will spend more time attending to those who pay more in... in fact, I steadfastly avoid ANY knowledge of who pays what in terms of church finances. Also, my pastoral concern does not stop if you have not been "paying in". Just because you have been giving regularly for 60 years or attending worship for even more it does not mean that I will be spending more time on your concerns than the concerns of a single mum who has never crossed the threshold of the church, never mind "paid in", but has asked for my help. I firmly believe in the saying of William Temple that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. Now, if everyone took that to heart then I could spend more of my time looking after the congregation, while the congregation then cares for the wider community, but we're not quite there yet.

12) If you offer your resignation from any position of responsibility within the church, I will not accept that resignation unless it is written down. Until that point I will discuss with you any reasons you might have for wanting or needing to resign, whether there is anything that we can do to change things around to make your resignation unnecessary, and whether you have identified a successor to your role. Leadership within the church should be based on a discipleship model of disciples making disciples and leaders making leaders. If you write a letter of resignation to me without discussing it first, particularly if it is in some fit of pique at some decision made by me or others, then I will simply accept the written resignation, and will not allow myself or other church leaders to be held to ransom. The same applies to resignation from membership of the congregation, or, as has happened in the past, the threat to stop "paying in" until a decision has been changed. The refusal to accept the financial responsibilities of membership of the church is not only blackmail, but effective resignation, and will be treated as such. 
13) In terms of your preferences as regards worship, I try, I really do try, to conduct worship in a way that helps the maximum number of people to praise God and hear what his word is saying... But the main audience for worship is not you, but God... and I am not some paid performer there to entertain you in worship, I am as Kierkegaard once famously suggested, merely the stage manager or prompter, trying to make it possible for the whole people of God to "perform" for that audience of one. Or if you prefer your analogies to come from more contemporary sources, I am, as Brian McLaren suggests like a gym instructor who leads you in a weekly workout so that your whole lives, corporately and individually throughout the week, are a fit sacrifice of worship to God. For obvious reasons I prefer the theatre analogy (who could ever take me seriously as a gym instructor) but whichever one you chose the ultimate question is the same, not how much you get out of worship how much you put into it... I prepare for about 5-10 hours for most services. How about you?

14) I don't conduct services of worship according to the clock. I try not to go over 1 hour 15 minutes in the morning, or 1 hour at night, and I try to not be too verbose in my sermons, but it is frequently the case, as someone once said about writing letters (I've heard it variously attributed to Pascal, Voltaire, Austen, Twain and Shaw) "I didn't have time to write a short one..." I have conducted some monumentally long services, and preached sermons that even I was bored by half way through... When I do so, I will generally apologise and try to learn from the experience... I've been at this game some time but am still learning and hope to continue doing so for some time yet.
15)  Again I am NOT perfect, nor do I think that I am... Indeed I am probably more critical of myself than anyone else could be. I am human. Honestly. Ministers are not a separate species. On the one hand, I try to be approachable... I'm not stuck on some higher spiritual plain... or in a pulpit, 6 feet above contradiction. But equally I hurt when I hear you've been complaining about me behind my back for 2 years and have never had the integrity to speak directly to me, or because of the continual "jokey" jibes that are made about whatever my failings are in your eyes, or the way that my family can get caught in the crossfire when people have a problem with me. It hurts. I try to forgive... but sometimes it is difficult...

16) Finally, the 6 Nations Rugby tournament is coming up... Please, never schedule a meeting, or try to contact me during an Ireland rugby match... or you may discover just how imperfect I am...

Cheers


Friday, January 18, 2013

An Unhealthy Political Diet

There has been a lot of fuss (and a fair amount of humour) at the news that many cheap burgers in various supermarket chains have a large percentage of horse in them. Not only would many Europeans be surprised at the furore concerning this, I was flabbergasted a couple of nights ago, when a vox-pop of some shoppers had them saying that they were really appalled because it made them wonder "what were they really feeding to their children." Given that they were already feeding them the lowest-priced meat products available this is perhaps a question they should have been asking earlier.
A friend of mine is behind the current health campaign in Northern Ireland pushing for weight loss and a healthier diet. I fear he may be on a beaten docket with me and many others in this province.
However, recent weeks and particularly the edifying experience that the Nolan Show on BBCNI was on Wednesday night, made me think that actually there is another dietary problem here in Northern Ireland:

  • Feed people on a diet of fear and it ultimately produces a fight or flight response... In the broad Unionist community fear has been all we have been fed by political (and some religious) leaders for years, and those who could "fly" have done... Some young people to universities abroad, never to return, some to places where you can still work in industry without academic qualifications, but most to leafy suburbs or the gold coast of north Down. Those who remain in "loyalist heartlands" are ready to fight that which they have been conditioned to fear... 
  • Feed people the lie that Sinn Fein are only at the political top-table because of their iniquitous campaign of violence, and there is no reason why anyone opposed to Sinn Fein should chose to prefer the ballot box over   petrol bombs, especially when politicians are often only seen in an area when they are electioneering, and are nowhere to be seen when the trouble they have helped foment bubbles over.
  • Feed people on foundation myths where people pledge to use "all means which may be found necessary" to preserve the Union and die on the Somme for King and country, together with slogans like "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right" and, again it creates the ideal conditions for conflict, rather than collaboration.
  • Feed people on the politics of confrontation, through TV and radio shows that thrive on it, and it will be mirrored in wider society. It has often been said that our political arrangements in the Northern Ireland Assembly are predicated on the fact that the two main communities just don't like each other and are not prepared to work together, yet despite all the formal arrangements, including a joint executive, aimed at defusing that situation, we still have a scenario where it is effectively a case of, if he/she/they are proposing this, then I/we are against it, even where it would actually help our community... For example, the whole transfer test debacle, where, despite the evidence that the transfer test is not helping working class Unionist children (as it perhaps once did) because the Education Department is the fiefdom of Sinn Fein, no right-thinking Unionist would EVER support their abolition of the 11 plus or entertain alternative approaches.
  • Feed people on slogans like "No Surrender" and "Not an Inch", and there is no hope of them seeing compromise of any sort as a positive thing aimed at creating a shared future with benefits for all... it propagates the zero analysis of politics, where if you win, I lose, instead of creating a situation where we can all win, and there is no "them" only "us".
  • Feed people on slogans of any sort and it removes the requirement to actually listen to any nuanced argument, or to provide one... cheap slogans, or leaflets, that tap into prejudice will do nicely.
  • Feed people on the nonsense that the "Britishness" of Northern Ireland is under threat, and it will ultimately be accepted as a fact, despite the truth that the GFA recognised the position of NI within the UK until the majority of people north want to change that... and that the people of the Republic of Ireland formally recognised that in a way they never had previously... It is a good job no-one asked the people in the rest of the UK, because, given our behaviour I fear they would get rid of us in an instant. 
  • Feed people provocative language about the Union flag being "ripped down" because of Alliance Party policy and there should be no surprise that it doesn't produce a measured democratic response by the local loyalist electorate, who are repeatedly told (see above) that their Britishness is under threat... Yet who changed their policy in Belfast Council? Alliance? No, they always argued for designated days (in line with the equality impact assessment and the policy of many other UK cities); the Unionists? No, they always argued for the retention of the flag all year round, at least in the council meeting in Belfast, if not in other councils; the Republicans? Yes... they had argued for complete removal, but ultimately voted FOR the flying of the British flag over City Hall on designated days.
  • Feed people on the politics of domination and it will be no surprise when they perceive the removal of prominent symbols as a loss, and, sadly, there will be no surprise when, if "the others" get the upper hand they use their new found power to do as they have been done to... although perhaps remembering how it felt to be on the receiving end might prompt more generosity of spirit... perhaps... might... 
  • Feed people on the idea that someone else is always to blame removes the responsibility from me and mine... it's always the other side, or the politicians, or the churches, or the paramilitaries, or the police, or the yobs, or the middle classes, or the Brits, or Europe (Delete as applicable). It's never me, or us... Responsibility needs to be modelled and respect earned.
  • Feed people on a diet of "whataboutery" produces a backward looking community, that wants old scores settled before we can possibly move forward. As the Georges Santayana quote on the east Belfast David Ervine mural (and the Auschwitz museum) says "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it", but those who are imprisoned by past hurts and injustices have no hope for the future.
  • Feed people on a diet of hopelessness and they will ultimately get the message and feel that they have nothing to lose by pulling the rest of society down round their ears... Concerns about prison records for young people!? Don't make me laugh. Even if they are ever lifted by the police, never mind prosecuted, given the lack of qualifications and serious employment prospects of many young people in loyalist areas, a prison record won't make things much more hopeless in their eyes, and may gain them the same community kudos as older lags, they think without realising the cost to that previous generation of prisoners... Call them scumbags and they will live up to their name... 


We've all got to take responsibility for our own diets and taking exercise if the current obesity statistics are to  be reversed, but political leaders, health authorities, the food industry and even employers are being asked to play their part in shaping a healthier dietary environment...

What is true of physical food and physical health is also true of the political and social health of our society... We have all as individuals and in different sectors of society got to address the junk food that we are consuming and sharing, because as someone once said "Man doesn't live on bread alone..."

Shalom





Friday, January 11, 2013

Green shoots

My post of yesterday seems to have struck a chord or two given the amount of traffic it has generated on the site... That's encouraging, as I was very reluctant to post it, because, contrary to popular perception I'm not grumpy about everything all the time. I'm forever telling my congregation that we are good news people not bad news, so in contrast to my 12 mid-winter gripes of yesterday, here are 12 signs of hope that keep me going. They are not direct responses to the issues I raised, but are examples of the things that remind me that, in the midst of a fallen world, God in his grace is at work redeeming and renewing that which he once looked on and called good... So here goes:

  • The commitment of Christian people across the UK to help the poorest in society through food pantries and other initiatives, including the Trussell Trust Foodbanks which have grown into a 300 strong network over the past 13 years, with 100 being established in the last year... with, hopefully, one opening in our area soon... It is appalling that they are needed, but good that they are there...
  • The compassion of one particular congregation (who will remain nameless but they know who they are) who, when they learned that our own community project had to close because of lack of funding leaving a number of families without a support worker, donated £1000 specifically for those families...
  • The generosity of one of our community group's funders who did not want to claw their funding back when the project closed, but are working with us as a church (despite not usually funding churches) to find a way to continue funding a particular strand of work with Dads and their kids...
  • The selflessness of certain Christians, churches and faith based groups who do not turn their backs on disadvantaged and disaffected areas of society, disappearing to safe, middle class suburbs, but stick it out, even in the midst of rioting, investing time, imagination, energy and money... 
  • The faithfulness of those who are prepared to pray publicly and regularly for our troubled city, and those with the inspired creativity to prompt such prayer, and other public events where alternative visions of this city and province can be articulated... 
  • The usefulness of social media for organising such events and allowing the exchange of ideas between people who may feel they cannot voice them locally... it may also be used by individuals and groups interested in fomenting violence, but why should the devil get all the good websites? (to misquote Larry Norman)
  • The prayerful support of friends from overseas, informed by and expressed via social media and often backed by generous practical and financial support...
  • The courage of some politicians in the morass of Northern Irish politics, arguing for a truly shared future even though it may not win them votes within their community or indeed party, indeed it may bring censure, threat and damage to their property...
  • The blessing of the NHS and those who work within it against enormous odds, within tight financial constraints and in the face of criticism from all quarters (often fuelled by sensationalist and ill-informed media coverage), to meet people's medical needs without an assessment of the ability to pay... I say this not only because I work within the system as a chaplain, but particularly in the light of the care my No1 son has received during the past annus horribilis...
  • The inspiration of those who have turned their own profound experience of illness into a channel of blessing for others, whether out of an explicit faith position or not... 
  • Those within churches who may disagree on issues, be they political, theological or social, and not become disagreeable about them... listening to and learning from each other without feeling threatened, or needing to have a coterie of like-minded friends around them.
  • The Ulster rugby team... Although by the looks of it, supporters may have difficulty getting to tonight's match because of flag protests... 

Those are my 12 (at the moment)... What are yours?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I'm Tired

I'm tired...

  • I'm tired of people in power laughing and joking over capping benefits for the poor, sneering at them as "shirkers" or "skivers" in contrast to "strivers"...
  • I'm tired of the wealthy bleating about losing child benefit, and fuel tax hikes that will make their gas-guzzling 4x4's marginally more expensive to fill up...
  • I'm tired of an economic system that is based on greed and dissatisfaction... conspicuous consumption that is destroying the planet, impoverishing more and more people (while a few get richer), and causing profound depression among those who are never content...
  • I'm tired of a Christian sub-set of that system that has bought into it uncritically, and constantly seeks to sell me the next big spiritual breakthrough in a book/programme/speaker/event...
  • I'm tired of all the strands of the media, music, film, TV, newspapers, internet et al that are filled to overflowing with the celebration of ignorance, amorality, violence, division... claiming that they do not shape society but simply reflect it... Reflecting it like one of those distorting mirrors at the fun-fair...
  • I'm tired of people in so called Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community of this province proving their loyalty to the flag/crown/queen by threatening elected representatives, attacking police and destroying their own areas...
  • I'm tired of Unionist politicians calling for public protests then being scandalised that those protests don't remain peaceful, washing their hands of all responsibility like Pontius Pilate, the patron saint of politicians who think that leadership is simply doing what the loudest people in the mob want...
  • I'm tired of Republican and Nationalist politicians trying to prove they are more Irish than the dissidents by making proposals that they know will be provocative... Political posturing that doesn't care about creating a shared space so long as they get one over on the others...
  • I'm tired of Christians whose loyalty to a country, a flag or a political position comes ahead of their loyalty to God, his Kingdom or his church...
  • I'm tired of culture wars between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists, who both misrepresent science and the Bible and how the two relate to one another...
  • I'm tired of churches that are tearing themselves apart over gender-roles and sexuality when we have no record of Jesus saying anything about either... while in the rest of scripture it is, at best, a secondary issue, certainly way behind issues of peace and poverty...
  • I'm tired of discussions in our own Methodist Church concerning the morality of accepting lottery money to help the very poorest in society, whilst the giving of Methodists to Home Missions, which also supports work with such people, is decreasing... Cheap morality... The church may not lose out, but the poor and vulnerable will... indeed already have while we continue yet another debate where no-one is really listening to anyone else...
I'm tired...
And it's only January...

But then again... it's the middle of winter, and, as my wife has just reminded me, spring is coming...

And in the light of that, tomorrow, rather than focus on these (and other) issues that are sucking the life and hope out of me, I'm going to post 12 signs of life and hope... Feel free to contribute...

Selah



Sunday, January 6, 2013

2 Covenants


On one of the radio talk-shows this week (don't know which one as I didn't put the radio on and am not even sure at which point in the week I heard it) one of the callers, who was a participant in the current "flag-protests" (although we all know that it's not just about a flag) claimed that he and his fellow protesters were more faithful to the 1912 Ulster Covenant than those Unionist leaders in Stormont sitting in government with the "enemies of Britain."
There could be some truth in that. Take a look again at the words and context of the 1912 Covenant.
BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant.

"Loyal subjects" pledging themselves to use "all means which may be found necessary" to thwart the undermining of "equal citizenship in the United Kingdom" even if that involves physical resistance to the forces of the crown. Tell me that doesn't sound familiar.

At the time of the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, the Belfast District Synod of the Methodist Church got into hot water over a statement which they released which raised questions concerning the link between the "all means which may be found necessary" statement, and the use of violence for political ends. I also helped draft an alternative "Contemporary Covenant" which was based on the traditional Methodist Covenant. This morning we renewed our covenant with God as we traditionally do on the first Sunday in January within Methodism. For those unfamiliar with the words of the Covenant Service, here is the Act of Covenant that lies at the heart of it all:

Beloved in Christ,  let us again claim for ourselves this covenant which God has made with his people,
and take upon us the yoke of Christ.  This means that we are content that he appoint us our place and work,
and that he himself be our reward.  Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,  others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.  Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us. Therefore let us make this covenant of God our own.
Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace. 
Lord God, holy Father,
since you have called us through Christ
to share in this gracious covenant,
we take upon ourselves with joy the yoke of obedience and, for love of you,
engage ourselves to seek and do your perfect will. We are no longer our own but yours.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
A very different covenant altogether...

Shalom

Friday, January 4, 2013

VM CD Prize 2012 Addendum

Doh! 

Just realised that I did actually buy a couple of CDs during the year... ie 2 (big spender me!): namely Karine Polwart's "Traces" which I wittered on about at length earlier in the year, and her old album "Scribbled in Chalk". Also I was given Jools Holland's "Golden Age of Song" for Christmas, which has some cracking tracks on it.Counters
But the VM award for best CD of 2012 really does have to go to "Traces". It is also up for a real award on the Radio 2 Folk Awards, although it will probably have been steamrollered in the public vote by the behemoth that is the faux-folk "Bellowhead". Karine is also up for an individual award, and "The King of Birds" has been nominated as best song. So she might get a real prize rather than a virtual VM one... If you want to find out how brilliant she is check out her session on Mark Radcliffe's new folk show on Radio 2 next Wednesday at 7pm

OK that is enough of 2012... Got to get back to the pile of work that means the beginning to 2013.

Cheers

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Virtual Methodist Awards for the Best of the Rest 2012

After my trawl through my 2012 bookshelves yesterday, here's my awards for a hotchpotch of other categories:

BEST FILM
In terms of ratings that I gave to films this year on the Flixster site, there would be a four way tie this year, between "The Dark Knight Rises", the final (?) part of Christopher's intelligent Batman trilogy, "Avengers Assemble" the first outing of Marvel's finest, and "Pirates: An Adventure with Scientists", which saw Aardman at its anarchic best, and the slow-burning "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". If I were to include those films I saw on video, then perhaps "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" might be in with a shout, or even "Moneyball", which must have been good to allow me to overcome my antipathy to Brad Pitt. But I'm going to stick to cinema releases, and if pushed I would probably say that "The Dark Knight Rises" gets my vote, as the most complete and complex film of the last year.  But the only film keeping "The Hobbit" out of the "Most Disappointing" category is the totally dreadful "Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger." All the signs were there in the title however...

BEST PLAY
After 2 plays at the Lyric being in the running for my favourite play of the year last year, sadly it was their version of Macbeth which would rate as most disappointing this year... And the show that I rushed out to see the next night as a means of cleansing my artistic palate, the New Lyric's "Fiddler of the Roof" would give most others I saw a run for the best of the year, despite being an amateur production... It had all the energy that Macbeth lacked. But it was a bumper year for theatre, getting to see the star-studded and hilarious "The Ladykillers" with the family in London, and a touring production of "Jason and the Argonauts" in a scandalously empty Stranmillis College Theatre during the Belfast Festival. But it is another touring production which I had wanted to see during its London run that gets the gong in my eyes... "One Man, Two Guv'nors" at the Belfast Grand Opera House, which, even though it had Rufus Hound in the lead role, still had me roaring with laughter. And this year, anything that could make me laugh must have been good...

BEST CONCERT/BEST CD
Shockingly, I only just realised that this has been a year where I don't think I've been to a single concert or bought a new CD... I will have to remedy that soon... Any suggestions as to what I should be investing my money in?

BEST BEER
Usually try a variety of ales on holiday but this year, since our holiday was in Turkey there weren't that many decent ales on offer. I quite like their Efes Pilsner, although most beg to differ, but the best new ale I had this year (forgetting old favourites like Duvel and Hoegaarden) was Hilden Halt which I had in the John Hewitt earlier in the year... It tastes like alcoholic milk chocolate (very alcoholic at 6.1%) so it is to be sipped verrrry slowly... Since Living Social has now transformed to a voucher-site, I use Ratebeer to keep track of the ales that have taken my fancy... But its a bit serious for my liking, so if anyone has any other suggestions I'll be glad to hear them...

BEST CUSTOMER SERVICE
Last year I was lauding the Kindle as the best piece of technical kit I bought last year... Sadly... towards the end of the year my beloved Kindle Keyboard suffered the catastrophic screen problems that seem to be endemic in such items, causing much guffawing among wood-pulp-loving luddites, but even in 22 months I had got my money's worth out of it... in ink costs if nothing else, as I now rarely print anything. So I went to Amazon to see what they could do, despite it being out of warranty. Within 3 minutes of loggin my problem on line, they had phoned me back so I could speak to a real person, and had a new kindle en route at the reduced cost of 2 ink cartridges! It is the basic grey model, but if anything I prefer it to my previous one. 
This customer service was a complete contrast to that experienced twice at the hands of Carphone Warehouse and Yodel... I won't go into details again for fear that my facebook friends unfriend me... and that I radically affect my bloodpressure.

BEST BLOG
This one is a bit difficult. My bloglist on the right is dominated by the big American blogs that everyone seems to be reading, though I largely have them there just to keep tabs on where American evangelicalism is is lurching, given that it disproportionately influences the rest of the world church. The best of the American crop, from my perspective is Rachel Held Evans, who has become almost ubiquitous on the blogosphere. There are friends like Stocki and Faith in Ireland consistently turning out great stuff from an Irish perspective, while Connexions is a constant companion on the journey... But my favourite funny recent discovery is the Anglican "Tea and Cake or Death"... Only came across it in the wake of the women bishops debacle... anyone that can find anything funny in that has to be good! (Sorry WhyNotSmile... distinct lack of regular blogging precludes you retaining your award this year, despite a late entry... though I am intrigued as to your promised plans for rectifying that!)

Anyway... that's it... Let me know what you think, or point me towards your lists of 2012...

And with that I'll probably take a break for a day or two... But I'll be back before we're too far into 2013.

Shalom